Genes Counter Depression Spawned by Child Abuse
> 2/22/2008 11:32:02 AM

In another major finding on the relationship between genetic predisposition and mental illness, researchers have identified a link between malformations of a particular stress hormone receptor and a reduced likelihood that victims of child abuse will develop severe depression later in life.

Biology plays a significant role in determining one's stress response, and an inefficient ability to counteract various stressors forms one of the foundations of clinical depression; as anxiety builds over time, it facilitates chronic conditions. Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), a chemical that serves to help regulate the stress response of the body and brain, is the central player in this new equation. The variation in question occurs in CRH's receptor protein; receptors facilitate the process of hormonal transmission by effectively catching the chemical messengers and binding them to target areas. Serious stressors signal the release of "stress hormone" cortisol by the adrenal gland, and the presence of inordinate amounts of the chemical throws the brain and body into "fight or flight" mode. In affected individuals, that process is skewed - the stress hormone can't adequately attach itself to the areas of the brain to which it travels. This proves beneficial in the sense that, without this key interaction, the young brain's development cannot be as heavily influenced by the consistent overabundance of cortisol, which can condition the individual into a more-or-less constant state of anxiety that carries into adulthood.

The majority of abused children, exposed to inordinate amounts of stress and� significant threats to their well-being, develop hypersensitive response systems that leave them even more vulnerable to a litany of mental health issues headed by the gold standard: depression. But study subjects displaying this genetic abnormality only displayed approximately 50% of the symptoms experienced by control patients. This is not to say that their condition in any way mitigated the unimaginable pain of abuse, but their mature neurologies were not shaped by the experience to such a great degree; they were, essentially, more resilient to the abuse because their brains could not fully process the intense anxieties that it created. The good news: the polymorphisms occurred in approximately 1/3 of the subject pool, meaning that many individuals are naturally less susceptible to the development of chronic conditions stemming from child abuse.

The first group studied by researchers were 422 adults who were all from low-income backgrounds and a majority of whom were African-American; in order to further solidify their study, they ran the same tests on a group of 199 more affluent and largely caucasian subjects. Their results were nearly identical, implying that the polymorphism trumps ethnic heritage and socioeconomic status in predicting the course of adult mental illness. The relevance of this finding cannot be overstated, as it is not uncommon for adults who suffer from severe chronic depression to have suffered child abuse in some way (this holds particularly true among women). Depression is almost a foregone conclusion for victims of recurring child abuse. But researchers can�very conceivably use this data to develop medications that make use of the CRH factor to better counter depression in individuals who've suffered such severe traumas. They may even be able, with time, to offer a pre-emptive treatment strategy.

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